“Deciding not to decide is, of course, among the most important things done by the Supreme Court. It takes a lot of doing, but it can be done.”
— Thurgood Marshall
“When the Supreme Court moved to Washington in 1800, it was provided with no books, which probably accounts for the high quality of early opinions.”
— Robert Jackson
You’ve had your day in court. Maybe it was a civil case. Maybe it was a custody matter. Maybe even a criminal charge. The judge has ruled, or perhaps even a jury. The written orders have been issued and the lawyers have closed up their briefcases. But if you lost, now what?
The American legal system can be a confusing labyrinth to many — and the appellate system even more so. Because there are both state and federal appellate systems, and because a case can move from one to the other, it can appear as though the appeals are almost endless.
Let’s assume that your case was in state court. If so, your appeals will likely begin there. Your first step will be to go to one of Ohio’s district courts of appeals. The 88 counties of Ohio are divided into thirteen appellate districts. Three of those districts, the 1st, 8th and 10th, cover only one county — Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Franklin. The other ten districts are divided to cover the remaining 85 counties. Delaware County falls into the sprawling 5th District, which has its home in Canton, in Stark County.
You’ll file your appeal in the county where the case was heard. Appellate briefs will be written by both sides in the case, and if the parties and the court wish, a time will be set for the court to hear “oral arguments”. The ten large districts “ride circuit”, meaning that the judges travel around to the counties in the district to hear cases. In an oral argument, the attorneys appear before three judges of the appeals court and try to convince them that their side is correct. The judges may listen quietly, or may interrupt frequently with questions.
Once the district court of appeals issues a written decision, that decision may be appealed again. In Ohio, that second appeal would come to the Supreme Court of Ohio. This seven Justice panel may choose to accept the case or may leave the court of appeals decision in place. If Ohio’s Supreme Court takes the case, the parties will again file written briefs and will again have the opportunity to make oral arguments, this time in the Moyer Judicial Center in Columbus.
Once the Supremes have ruled, one side still isn’t going to be happy. But for most matters, that will simply be the end of things. In some cases, though, the parties will be able to find a “federal question” — an issue that implicates federal law. Maybe it’ll be a free speech issue under the First Amendment, or an equal protection issue under the 14th. In those cases, one side will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to certify that a question of federal law exists, and accept jurisdiction in the federal system. For the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the case, it will issue what is called a “writ of certiorari”, which is Latin for “to be informed of”. In legal circles, this is called “granting cert.”
But other cases may enter the federal system in different ways. A person convicted of a criminal offense may ask a federal court to review their confinement under a “habeas corpus” review, for instance.
If your case was initiated in a federal court, then your appeals process would begin there. Similar to the state process, the federal courts have regional Circuit Courts of Appeals and then the Supreme Court. Circuit Court cases are first heard by a three judge panel, and the losing party may then ask that the full membership of the Circuit Court re-hear the case. Federal administrative matters may also be appealed through the federal appellate system.
It may seem as though appeals go on and on, but both the state and federal appellate systems are strictly structured and tightly regulated.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.